Last month, I had the honor of helping a group of military veterans prepare for a new expedition — a foray into politics as candidates for elected office.
The participants in the newly launched Veterans Program for Politics and Civic Engagement, created by Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and its Institute for Veterans and Military Families, were a varied lot.
Most were men, but in other demographic and geographic respects they reflected the diversity of America. The group included firmly conservative Republicans, progressive Democrats and moderates.
As the sessions began, I wasn’t sure what to expect in our discussions of politics. Given their ideological differences, how would the participants get along with each other? The topics, after all, were the very things on which they disagreed the most.
Veterans support one another
Yet, what immediately struck me and stayed with me throughout the program was the genuine support the veterans offered each other, despite their political differences.
In our meetings with current and former office holders, consultants, and other experts and practitioners, the veterans worked together on how best to organize a campaign, develop an effective message, counter political attacks, and raise money. In other sessions, they floated their nascent campaign plans and stump speeches, and shared constructive criticism.
What united these men and women across party lines? They shared, of course, a profound life experience centered on service, mission and sacrifice. But there was something more: They had each other’s backs in their shared commitment to engage in the political process and to serve in a new capacity.
“Nobody joins the military who doesn’t want to help people,” Rick Paxton, a “pretty darn conservative” white Republican, said. “It’s in their DNA.”
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The veterans also talked about the military’s priority of getting the job done. “In the military everyone is held accountable for the outcome,” Stewart Payne, a moderate African-American Democrat, said.
Veterans set aside differences
As veterans, they had to learn how to set aside differences to achieve common goals. Because of that, Pete Colbert, a conservative white Republican, said, “we all try to make each other better, and try to learn off each other.”
The participants agreed that there is an immediate respect that comes from their shared identity, and that enables them to listen to each other.
“I’ve been on a ship for six months, and I’m closer to those people than people I’ve known all my life,” Alicia Barnes, a progressive white Democrat, said.
The veterans also said the diversity of the program’s participants was a strength. Being with fellow veterans, Barnes said, provided “a safe place where you could get exposure to other sides. We’re in these bubbles, we get stuck in them.”
So what’s the political lesson here?
We can’t all have the kinds of shared experiences that bind veterans together. And while encouraging more veterans to seek elected office might reduce polarization, it won’t deter the forces that continue to pull us apart as a nation.
Nevertheless, the veterans program does point to the importance of highlighting shared experiences and values. What if, like these veterans, we focus first on what binds us together before we clash over those things that separate us?
What if we saw America’s diversity as a strength rather than an obstacle? What if we followed the lead of our nation’s veterans by learning to set aside differences to achieve common goals?
Grant Davis Reeher is director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.